Opinions & Ideas

Category: Books Page 1 of 6

THE POLITICS OF BRITAIN AND IRELAND  OVER A CENTURY AGO.

 A century ago, events in Britain influenced Ireland far more than they do today. 

 So understanding British politics of that era, was more important  than now to understanding Irish politics.

 That is what makes“ The strange survival of Liberal Britain….. Politics and Power Before the First World War” by Vernon Bogdanor so interesting.

The book  is published by Biteback Publishing .

It is an account of the politics of the British Isles between 1890 and 1914, and is essential reading for a student of Irish history.

 It is comprehensive. It gives a good account of the Boer War, of the struggle for votes for women, the rise of the Labour Party, and of the introduction of unemployment and sickness insurance.  It deals with the evolution of British  Foreign policy, including the alliance with Japan and, the increasing, though not inevitable, rivalry with Germany. It covers the tragic events that led to the First World War.

 It is, in every sense, a big book.  

The title of the book is misleading, in the sense that  the book is about far more than the survival of Liberalism.

It explores the issue of tariff reform, forgotten today, but politically convulsive for the first  20 years of the  20th Century,

 In the 1890’s, a leading figure in the Conservative and Unionist Party, Joseph Chamberlain, committed his party to what he called “tariff reform”. 

 By this he meant something was quite radical, turning the British Empire, which spanned every continent on the globe, into an economic union, like the EU is today. 

 As with the founders of the EU in the 1950’s, Chamberlain envisaged giving trade preference to goods produced within the British Empire, over imports from elsewhere (like continental Europe and the US), and thereby strengthening the political unity of the Empire. 

In the 1890s , Empires were regarded as progressive concepts. They were seen as vehicles for the promulgation of civilized ideas, such as the rule of law. 

 Other powers, like France, the Netherlands and the United States, were also seeking to build their own Empires. Empires were seen as efficient, enjoying economies of scale that smaller powers could not match. “The Empire” was something that helped keep England, Scotland and Wales united in a shared endeavour.

 So Chamberlain’s proposal for Imperial trade preference was seen, at least superficially, to be going with, rather than against, the grain of history. 

As a result of Chamberlain’s advocacy, the Conservatives were to promote tariff reform, on an on and off basis, for almost 30 years.

  But it proved to be a vote loser.

 This was because the British Empire could not produce all the food that Britons wanted to eat, and tariff reform would have required a tax on food coming from outside the Empire.

 High food prices, then as now, were politically lethal for the Conservatives.  Chamberlain’s protectionist ideas also ran against the free trade, laissez faire, ideology that had dominated economic thinking in Britain for much of the nineteenth century. 

Winston Churchill, a young Conservative MP, left the party and became a Liberal in 1904, because he believed in free trade. Joseph Chamberlain’s son, Neville, would put some of his father’s protectionist ideas into practice, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1930s.

Joseph Chamberlain was a dynamic force. A successful businessman, and Mayor of Birmingham, he was non conformist by religion, and was an early advocate of old age pensions and anti poverty programmes.  He was originally a Liberal MP, but left the Party because of its support for Home Rule for Ireland. He was never really a Conservative.

Tariff Reform is just one of the many themes explored in Vernon Bogdanor’s comprehensive history of the 30 years preceding the First World War. It is a history of policy making, rather than just of politics. 

The drama is there, but so also is the solid content.

The book covers developments affecting Ireland, just as it covers England, Wales and Scotland. 

Ireland was run by 29 different government Departments, each with its own board, and all supervised by a single non resident Chief Secretary for Ireland, usually an English or Scottish MP from the governing party in Westminster. 

By some measures, Ireland did well during this final period of British rule.

The amount spent by the UK central Exchequer in Ireland increased more quickly than the amount of tax raised here.

 In 1893, there was a surplus on the budget of the Irish Administration of £2million and Ireland was making  net contribution to the overall UK budget.

 In contrast, by 1912, the surplus was turned into a deficit of £1.5million. This was for two reasons……

  • the cost of old age pensions (introduced in 1909) for which a lot of Irish people qualified, and
  • the UK Exchequers subsidies to the transfer of Irish land from landlords to tenants under legislation passed in 1903.

Ireland was actually over represented in the House of Commons, with one MP for every 44,000 voters as one for every 66,000 in England

But that was not worth much.  The only input anyone, elected in Ireland, had to the process by which Ireland was actually governed was through the Irish MPs in the House of Commons .  But Irish MPs, other than a few Unionists, rarely became Ministers.

 This was totally insufficient,  and  it explained the growing demand  here for a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin , with its own elected Ministers, to take over the powers of the over stretched Chief Secretary for Ireland. 

The idea of Home Rule was resisted in Britain. It was seen as heralding the beginning of the disintegration of the Empire. As Lord Salisbury, Prime Minister at the beginning of the period, put it.   

”If Ireland goes, India will go 50 years later” 

The forces in Britain ranged against Home Rule were substantial and serious. 

This is why it is truly remarkable that Home Rule for Ireland passed into law, without a shot being fired, in September 1914.

 This peaceful achievement by Irish politicians in Westminster, like John Redmond, John Dillon and Joe Devlin, was largely ignored by the Government at the beginning of our recent decade of  Centenary Commemorations. It was ignored in favour of physical force nationalism.

Bogdanor deals with how Home Rule became law, peacefully, in 1914. 

The Liberal government of the day depended on the Irish Party and the Labour Party to stay in office.

 The Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George introduced a radical budget. This budget was rejected in the House of Lords, creating a constitutional crisis. In response the Liberal government introduced a Parliament Bill to curb the power of the Lords to veto legislation passed in the Commons. 

The Irish Party then told the government that they in turn would oppose the budget, unless the Parliament Bill removed the Lords’ indefinite veto on Home Rule. 

It was brinkmanship, but it worked. 

If the Lords had not rejected the budget in the first place, Home Rule might have been postponed by a Liberal Government, who had only a half hearted commitment to it.

The book also deals with the lead up to the First World War.

Joe Chamberlain in the 1890s had favoured a Teutonic (Protestant) alliance between the UK, the US and Germany. But majority opinion in Britain preferred closeness with France and Russia.

 The British Cabinet seems to have had little discussion of foreign and defence policy in the years before the War. Exaggerated reliance was placed on the Royal Navy, and the Army was neglected.  In general, the Cabinet had no agenda, no regular meetings, and no minutes in this period!

  It was the German invasion of Belgium, in August 1914, that enabled the UK to enter the War, as a united country on the allied side.

 If Germany had avoided Belgium, the UK would have been deeply split on whether to support France militarily, or stay out.

 As far as war guilt is concerned, it was the belligerent and irresponsible demands of Austria on Serbia, that dragged Russia and Germany into war with one another.

I strongly recommend this book. The reader will find that many of the problems we sense as being unique to our era were around in our grand parents time too.

TRAITOR KING

I have just finished reading “Traitor King by Andrew Lownie. It covers the activities of King Edward the Eighth after his abdication in 1936.  Ostensibly he abdicated because he insisted on marrying a divorced woman, Wallis Simpson. But there were worries in government circles about his political views and his temperament.

As Prince of Wales, and briefly as King, he had led a full life, with plenty to do, and plenty of time for affairs and entertainments as well.  He had spent his entire life as heir to the throne surrounded by servants who attended to his every whim. He became used to adulation.

After he abdicated, all this changed.  He was no longer a King, just the Duke of Windsor. His wife was not a Queen, and was not allowed to describe herself with the prefix HRH (a matter about which he became obsessed).. Initially he lived in Paris and the French Riviera with Wallis Simpson.

 He doted on her and became dependent on her. But she found him boring. She found it difficult living up to the legend of a romantic love she did not feel.

He no longer had anything useful to do, no prearranged programme. Their days were filled with private dinners and lunches and little else.

As time went by, he wanted to be back at the centre of things. This desire for attention led to his entanglement with Germany.

His Fascist and pro German sympathies had been well known even before he abdicated. The British Union of Fascists even held a demonstration demanding that his abdication not take place until there had been a referendum on it.

His first formal trip, after his abdication, was a high profile visit to Nazi Germany.  He wanted to make a similar high-profile trip to the United States. But the reaction to his German trip was so bad that this had to be called off.

He soon became convinced that Britain could not defeat Germany in a war, and should reconcile with the Nazi regime.

When the War broke out in 1939, he was given a role inspecting the defences on the French and British fronts facing Germany. His report identified the weak point in the Ardennes, which Germany was to exploit to spectacularly a few months later.

 But in his private conversations, he was a defeatist, talking in direct contradiction to the foreign policies of his own government.

When France fell in May 1940, he fled to Spain and later to Portugal.

 Lownie’s book documents his indirect, but extensive, contacts with German agents while in Madrid and Lisbon. He was scheming to get Britain out of the war, and himself back onto the throne.

While he did want peace for its own sake, he also saw either a German victory, or a negotiated peace, as routes towards getting himself back to the throne of England, and a means  of his wife becoming Queen.

 It is pretty clear, from the documentary evidence cited in this book (including German archives discovered after the War), that his activities while in Spain and Portugal in 1940 amounted to treason.

His stay in Europe was cut short when he was sent as Governor of the Bahamas, where he intrigued with isolationists to keep the United States out of the war.

Edward the Eighth was not a stupid man. He had some administrative ability which he demonstrated as Governor of the Bahamas from 1940 to 1945.

 So how could he have allowed himself to become drawn into what he should have seen were treasonable activities?

I suspect the atmosphere in which he grew up, as heir to the throne, led him to believe that normal rules did not apply to him.

This is a highly readable book.

POLAND,  A HISTORY

Over the Christmas holiday I read “Poland, a history” by Adam Zamoyski.

The book was published in 2009, and thus predates the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It offers very up to date insights into the vulnerabilities and fears of all the peoples (Poles, Belarussians, Prussians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Lithuanians, and Polish Jews) who live, or lived,  in the area that is now, or once was,  Poland,

It is an area that is witnessing  the most severe and prolonged war conditions in Europe since 1945.

Some centuries ago, Kiev, Lviv and Kherson (now Ukraine) were all actually part of the then Polish/ Lithuanian Commonwealth.

At the time, many western European countries, such as France, were absolute monarchies.

 But the Polish/ Lithuanian Commonwealth was different. It was a limited monarchy, where the King was elected from among  people who were either notable Poles or Lithuanians, or  were  members of the royal family of another European country.

 For example, James, the Duke of York, who went on to become King James the Second of Britain and Ireland, was considered as a candidate to be King of Poland at an earlier point in in his career.

There was no permanent state apparatus in the Commonwealth , and the King could only get things done by operating through the elected Sejm, where unanimous agreement was often needed for big decisions.

 This veto system worked surprisingly well, as long as there was a broad consensus among the Polish and Lithuanian peoples. But when the consensus broke down, the veto was exploited by outside powers , and by over ambitious Poles who wanted to paralyse the state. This eventually led to the carving up of Poland by Russia, Austria and Prussia.

The Commonwealth was designed to limit state power, in line with ideas that popular during the Enlightenment of the 18th century. These ideas of a limited state still find favour among some conservative Republicans in the US.

The current Polish government, which has tried in recent times to limit the independence of the Polish judiciary, is thus pursuing policies that are contrary to Polish democratic and constitutional traditions.

The same Polish government, having freely joined Germany as a fellow member of the EU in 2000, now wants to sue Germany for damages caused by the German invasion and occupation of Poland in the Second World War. This is shocking.

This war was over well before the EU was formed. If Poland was serious about this claim for World War Two damages, it should have made resolving the issue, a requirement of Polish membership of the EU . It did not do so.

 Now, too late, it is exploiting historical grievances to whip up nationalistic sentiment in Poland. This is deeply destructive. If we go down this road the EU will not survive for long.

WHO AUTHORISED THE ASSASSINATION OF HENRY WILSON, IN 1922 WHILE A TRUCE WAS IN FORCE, AND AFTER A PEACE TREATY HAD BEEN SIGNED?

I really enjoyed reading “Great Hatred, the Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP” by Irish Times journalist Ronan McGreevy.

Henry Wilson was assassinated on 22 June 1922 outside his London home.

A truce in hostilities between the IRB/IRA and the UK had been agreed in July 1921 and was still in force in June 1922.

A constitution for the Irish Free State, based on the Treaty of December 1921 agreed between Irish and British delegations including Michael Collins and David Lloyd George, had been published on 16 June 1922, a week before the assassination of Henry Wilson. 

Wilson was disliked in Ireland, but he was revered in England. He was considered there to have been a key figure in the allied military strategy that saved France in the Great War.

Henry Wilson had been born and raised in Currygrane, near Ballinalee in Co Longford, on a large farm. His family had come to Longford from Ulster in an earlier generation, and Wilson felt himself to be an Ulster man more than a Longford man. David Trimble came from similar Longford stock.

The men who killed Henry Wilson were Reginald Dunne and Joseph O Sullivan. 

Both were native born Londoners of Irish ancestry, and had been active members of the IRB. In London they grew up in deeply Irish culture.

The Supreme Commander of the IRB, at the time of the assassination, was Michael Collins, who was simultaneouslyalso President of Provisional Government of the Irish Free State.

Meanwhile, IRA members opposed to the Treaty and to the Provisional Government, had occupied the Four Courts in Dublin, and other strong points around the country. This was an unsustainable situation for the new state, from a law and order point of view.

When news of the assassination broke, the immediate assumption in British government circles was that it had been ordered by these anti Treaty forces. McGreevy dismisses this theory. 

Another theory was that there had been a standing order from the IRB to assassinate Wilson, and that this had not been withdrawn, notwithstanding the truce and the Treaty. McGreevy does not believe this theory either.

He says O Sullivan and Dunne were scrupulous followers of military discipline who would not have acted on a free lance basis, without clear and current orders.

The author concludes the assassination was actually authorised by Michael Collins himself, in his capacity as commander of the IRB. There is no written evidence of this , as the IRB was a highly secretive society, and left no paper trails.

Why might Collins have issued such an order?

Wilson, who had just retired from the Army, had taken on a role as military advisor to the Northern Ireland (NI) Government. He had recently become a Unionist MP. 

During this time NI security forces had colluded in attacks on Catholics. Apparently Wilson was not involved, and was noteven in Northern Ireland for much of the period. Wilson’s political opinions were, however, well known and highly bigoted. In 1914, as a serving soldier, he had colluded with the Tory Opposition in an attempt to block Home Rule .

But none of these things would seem to rise to a level that would justify the authorisation of an assassination, in 1922during a truce, and while a peace Treaty was in course of ratification.

Collins’ top role in the IRB is very hard to reconcile with his Presidency of the Provisional Government of the Free State.

In this short review, I have focussed on one just one aspect of this multilayered story.

McGreevy gives a sympathetic account of the Wilson, Dunne and O Sullivan families, and their changing fortunes. Heexplains the shifting politics of the time, and of the friendly links between the Wilson family, and their Longford neighbour, General Sean McEoin, “The Blacksmith of Ballinalee”.

Reading this book, I am reinforced in my view that once the gun is introduced into Irish politics, it is very hard to get it out again.

IRELAND’S CALL….NAVIGATING BREXIT

I have just finished reading a book with the above title by Stephen Collins, the noted columnist with the “Irish Times”.

It tells the story of how Irish governments led by Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar and Miceal Martin,  dealt with fall out from the UK decision to leave the EU. There are so many twists and turns in the narrative that a summary is impossible within the scope of a short review. 

The Irish Foreign Minister at the time of the Brexit Referendum in 2016 was Charles Flanagan, and he reacted to the decision with commendable speed and thoroughness.

 He briefed his counterparts in all 26 remaining EU states about Ireland concerns, namely that of keeping the border open between the two parts of the island and preserving the Republic’s position as a full member of the EU Single Market. This laid the foundation of the consistent support Ireland has had for its position from all the EU institutions.

One political figure who does not emerge with much credit from Collins’ account is the current leader of the UK Labour Party, Keir Starmer. 

In her final days as Prime Minister, Theresa May tried to assemble a majority in Parliament for  deal that would have kept the entire UK in the EU Customs Union, thereby mitigating or removing the need for customs post either in  ports, or on the land border. For this, she needed the support or abstention of the opposition Labour Party. 

As Stephen Collins puts it

“ Corbyn was relatively open the deal, but Keir Starmer, who was in theory strongly pro EU, raised obstacles at every turn .”

This was the last chance of a soft Brexit.  Defeating the Tories took a higher priority for Starmer than preserving good international relations. The story does not create much confidence about the level of responsibility one can expect from a Labour government in the UK.

HOW BRITAIN HAS SEEN ITS PLACE IN THE WORLD FROM 1815 To 1955

I have just greatly enjoyed reading Douglas Hurd’s book

 “ Choose your weapons….the British Foreign Secretary , 200 years of Argument , Success and Failure”.

Hurd has had a distinguished career,  including as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He is an excellent writer. He combines historical analysis with vivid sketches of political personalities.

Published in 2010, this book shows how the life experiences and assumptions of successive Foreign Secretaries influence the content and outcome of diplomatic policies.

There is a tension , throughout this long period , between two views of how Britain should conduct itself in its relations with its European neighbours.

One view was that the UK should seek to create , and take part in a structure of consultation which would help preserve peace in Europe.

The best exponent of this approach was an Irishman, originally an MP in the pre Union Irish Parliament, Lord Castlereagh.  He helped to ensure that a defeated France was not humiliated in 1815. Arguably his work  in the Congress of Vienna and afterwards helped preserve relative peace in Europe until 1914.

The other view was that the UK should be somewhat more isolationist, intervening to promote liberal causes,  but not becoming entangled in Europe. Lord Palmerston was the best exponent of this approach. There were others who were less flamboyant.

Some figures that are forgotten today get due notice in this book.

The role of Ernest Bevin in helping found NATO,  and thereby committing the US to the defence of Europe,  is recalled and is very relevant to events today , and to the peace of Europe for the last 70 years.

Another figure who get deserved recognition is Austen Chamberlain, the author of the Locarno Pact which reintegrated Germany into good relations with its neighbours and could have kept peace in Europe but for the economic crash and the rise of Hitler in the 1930’s.  

Unlike his half brother, Neville, Austen warned of the danger of Hitler before any other British leader, including Churchill.

The relative economic power of Britain peaked around 1870 and was in slow decline thereafter. But the fact that so many parts of the world were still coloured pink on the map as part of the British Empire led some statesmen to overestimate British power.

In the earlier periods the Foreign Secretary made policy under mild supervision from the Prime Minister. Nowadays the Prime Minister is more central, but a lot depends on personalities.

Anthony Eden was a good and methodical Foreign Secretary , who became a bad Prime Minister , because he had no strong Foreign Secretary to restrain him over Suez.

The UK today is isolating itself in a dangerous way. It is conversing with itself , rather than with its neighbours . None of the statesmen chronicled in this book would have allowed that to happen.

Haughey

Charles Haughey’s childhood was marked by the illness and financial tribulations of his Derry born father, a retired army Officer and IRA veteran, Johnny Haughey. 

 Johnny Haughey was on the run in the South Derry countryside for much on 1920/1 and this may have permanently damaged his health. 

 He took part in the IRA Ambush at Swatragh on 5 June 1921, in which the 28 year old Catholic member of the RIC from Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, Michael Burke, was killed.

  Johnny Haughey went on the serve as an officer in the Free State Army, but seems not to have been politically involved beyond that. His wife, Sarah, had to bear an extra burden of caring for him when he contracted multiple sclerosis. 

Charles Haughey was a good student, won a scholarship to UCD and had qualified as both an accountant and a barrister by the age of 24, quite a feat. He also represented Dublin in the minor hurling All Ireland final. His hurling career ended, when he was suspended for a year for striking a linesman, when playing when for Parnells.

This book is useful in reminding readers of his early career, his struggle to be elected to the Dail, and  his nationwide role in party reorganisation.

 He was effective, as Minister  for Justice,  in enacting some of the large backlog of partially prepared legislation in the Department , notably the Succession Act, which gave greater protection to widows. He also reformed the Civil Liability Act, which, among other things,  recognized  that unborn children might be injured, and thus be entitled to redress after birth. In this, he was more enlightened, and had a larger vision of human rights, than has the present generation.

 His avoidable confrontation with the farmers in 1966 is covered rather cursorily. Things got so bad that outgoing Taoiseach, Sean Lemass had to intervene to bring this row to a diplomatic conclusion.

 Gary Murphy claims that, in this book, he is making what he calls a “reassessment” of Charles Haughey, on the basis of his unprecedented access to Haughey’s private papers.  

The facts of Mr Haugheys later career, and of his totally inappropriate financial dependency on donors to maintain an artificially extravagant public lifestyle, are so well known that this “reassessment”    is unlikely to change opinions.  Readers will just be better informed of the facts.

 Apart from some private jottings, which Haughey left in his papers, about his attitude to Northern Ireland and the Arms Trial, the private papers reveal relatively little that is illuminating about Haughey himself, or his private thoughts. 

  The private papers are full of  letters of enthusiastic praise from correspondents on the occasion of his various promotions as a Minister, and of his survivals of party heaves against him. 

Surprisingly for such a partisan figure, many of these letters he received came from senior civil servants and judges, people one might have been expected would maintain greater professional distance. 

 The fact that such people felt moved to write to him throws light on the persona that Charles Haughey had deliberately cultivated. His persona was designed   to mesmerize and hold people in thrall, and thus to enhance his power. In his manner and comportment, he cultivated mystery, awe, and to a great degree, fear.

 He wanted to be seen as the uncommon man, not as the common man.

 His exotic , and mysteriously financed, extravagant lifestyle, was part his attempt to cultivate awe and a consequent  degree of fear.

 As Donald Trump  once said to the author , Bob Woodward;

“Real power is….. I don’t want to use the word….. fear”.

This fear was an important instrument in Mr Haughey’s political repertoire.  The author says Haughey   “could be extremely dismissive of his political colleagues”, but adds , rather dubiously,  that he was never rude to his civil servants. 

From long before his own election to the Dail, Haughey had cultivated a relationship with the grassroots members of Fianna Fail all over the country, by attending Cumann functions and addressing meetings. He later harnessed this relationship to browbeat some TDs into voting for him.

He also was a master of symbolic language, of uncertain content.  

He claimed adherence to Fianna Fail’s “republicanism”, without ever defining what that meant, in terms of day to day politics in the here and now. 

 By focussing on the distant dream, he kept everyone happy. 

 He believed the” British had no more right to be in the 6 counties than in the 26”, as if the problem was the British, rather than the unionists. After his acquittal in the Arms Trial, he claimed to have a “fundamental difference” on Northern policy with Jack Lynch, but never elaborated on what that was. The author does not probe this. 

 The author describes Haugheys views on Northern Ireland as “naive”, believing, it seems, that all that was needed was to persuade the British to leave, and all would be well.

When it comes to Mr Haughey’s economic record, the author does not dig very deep at all. He claims Haughey was an “instinctive Keynesian”.  The author does not reflect on what  ”Keynesianism” could credibly mean, in a small open economy, where any debt fuelled stimulus  would quickly leave the country in the form of extra imports.

When Haughey became Taoiseach in 1979, he was warned that the solvency of the state was at risk as a result of increases in spending and reductions in the tax base, that had occurred since 1977 and before.

 In the meantime,  international interest rates had been deliberately hiked by Paul Volker of the Federal Reserve, in what proved to be a successful , but very painful ,  attempt to drive inflation out of the  international system.

 As a small country, but a big borrower for day to day spending, Ireland was very vulnerable indeed in 1979, when Mr Haughey inherited Jack Lynch’s large parliamentary majority, and could have done something about it. 

Maurice Doyle of the Department of Finance, one of his regular congratulatory correspondents, warned Haughey that the country was already at stage 2 on a 5 stage route to economic disintegration.

 Haughey then  made an eloquent television broadcast warning that the country was living beyond its means, and hinting that he would take  imminent action. But, notwithstanding his large parliamentary majority, his government did nothing. 

 Haughey pursued the illusion of an understanding with unions and employers, rather than putting the government’s own financial  house in order first,  by tax increases and spending reductions.  

 He acted as his own Minister for Finance, sidelining the real Ministers for Finance, Michael O Kennedy and Gene Fitzgerald.

 In January 1981, he produced a budget that pretended to curb  nominal spending, without taking  any of the  necessary policy decisions,  and which  artificially inflated  1981 revenue,  by bringing forward revenue from 1982 ( adding to the 1982 problem).

  As Opposition spokesman at the time, I informed the Dail of the phoniness of these budget numbers and described the budget as one of “drift and expediency”. 

Shortly after this budget, Mr Haughey, who had a large overall majority, and could have continued in office for another year, to deal  with the financial crisis, called General Election.  He lost it, and Fianna Fail was never again to regain the overall parliamentary majority that he had failed to use, and then prematurely cast away.  

 His government was replaced by a Fine Gael/Labour government which, unlike the Haughey government, was in a minority in the Dail.

 That new government had no choice, minority or not, to tackle to financial problem it had inherited head on, and I am proud to say , it did so.

 But because of the lack of a parliamentary majority, this led to the country having to endure  three General  Elections in a row, something which could have been avoided if the Haughey government, which did have a majority in the Dail,  had done its job between 1979 and 1981.

When he returned to office in 1987, with the insurance provided by the support of Fine Gael and Alan Dukes Tallaght strategy, his government  eventually made the economies he could have made in the 1979/81 period. The task was eased by the fact that international interest rates had fallen in the meantime, which reduced government spending on debt service. But he then cast that   insurance aside,  by calling a wholly unnecessary General Election in 1989, a mistake that he paid for later.

 In second order things, Charles Haughey was a very imaginative policy maker.  But on the big things, he often dodged responsibility, and showed a degree of timidity that sat very uneasily beside his carefully cultivated public image. 

 This 637 page book is more than a biography. It is a fairly full political history of Ireland, from the 1950’s to 1990, as seen from the perspective of Ireland’s then largest party, Fianna Fail. 

HOW IRISH PEOPLE HAVE SEEN THEMSELVES SINCE 1958

I have just finished reading Fintan O Toole’s latest book, “We don’t know ourselves”, (Apollo Books) which is subtitled “a personal history of Ireland since 1958”.

O Toole was born in that year and he weaves some of his family story into the broader trends in Irish life, that the book describes.

The central theme  is an exploration of Irish hypocrisy.

 Fintan O Toole sees hypocrisy in recent Irish attitudes to religious practice, abortion, the use of violence for political ends, the desirability of a united Ireland, unmarried motherhood, clerical child abuse, the United States and what it stands for, and to a host of other things.

He neatly defines hypocrisy as

 “the tribute paid by realism to piety”.

Hypocrisy is also often a survival strategy and a form of evasive politeness. There are worse sins.

O Toole describes how, in his early life, emigration was a constant feature of the Irish experience.  45% of those born in the independent Irish state between 1931 and 1936 would eventually emigrate.

For some of them, emigration was a means of escaping the constraints imposed, both by the expectations of their extended family in Ireland, and by notions of morality and respectability derived from prevailing versions of Catholic teaching.

These constraints have loosened, and O Toole admits that

“The real effect of the loss of church authority was that there was no deeply rooted civic authority to take its place”.

He does not explore this. If religion is no longer a guide, what is taking its place? Is it individual choice based on utilitarian principles, or is wokeness taking the place of faith?

This might be a topic for Fintan’s next book.

But demolishing hypocrisy, so elegantly done in this book, is an easier task than creating the ingredients for a new and sustainable social contract.

This will be a big part the task that faces the Christion churches in 21st Century Ireland.  It is their road back to social relevance.   A huge mental and moral effort will be required, and no one else is volunteering to undertake it.

PRESIDENT KENNEDY……A NEW BIOGRAPHY

“JFK”, by Fredrik Logevall, (Penguin Books) is the first volume of a two volume biography of the US President who was killed in Dallas in 1963. It covers the period up to 1956 with a lot of personal and family detail.

Kennedy was a moderate student, but one who read widely. He was serious and introspective, but he also used people without much concern for their feelings. This was particularly the case in his relations with women.

 He came from an unnaturally competitive family and displayed great physical courage, both in his wartime service, and in his battle with illness throughout his life.

While his father, Joe Kennedy, supported appeasement and isolationism in the 1930s, JFK , in contrast, supported US military activity abroad, and criticised President Truman for the  “loss” of China to the Communists.

This is a very readable, if slightly long, book.

MYTHS ABOUT HISTORY CAN LEAD TO FUTURE ERRORS

An unrealistic understanding of the past can lead popular opinion, and politicians, into tragic errors.

Felix Larkin has recently published a collection of essays, entitled “Living with History”, that deals the use and abuse of historical commemorations,  and of official versions  history, in Ireland. 

 Popular opinions about history frequently involve mythologizing certain events, and over simplifying  the choices that were available to decision makers at the time. 

For example, Felix Larkin robustly challenges the popular view, endorsed in his recent book  by the historian Diarmaid Ferriter, that the border was “imposed “  on Ireland, against its will, by the British in 1920.

 Larkin points out that Redmond and Carson had accepted some form of partition in principle in 1914, and again in negotiations after the Rising in late 1916. So also did the majority of TDs, who had been elected under a Sinn Fein banner,   when they accepted the Treaty of 1921 by a vote in the Dail. 

 On each occasion the Irish leaders in question shrank from the prospect of a prolonged and bitter sectarian war, and even more deaths, that would have been necessary to impose a united Ireland on a resisting unionist population. 

 They were realists, facing their unpleasant responsibilities, and realists are rarely suitable subject for romantic historical commemorations.  We are being reminded of this by recent events. I am not sure much has changed. There is still a widespread view that unionists will cease to be unionist once there is a border poll. 

As Larkin sees it, the role of the historian is to debunk myths about the past.

 The historian’s role is to recognize that nothing that happened in the past was necessarily inevitable.  History is the result of an accumulation of a series of individual decisions, each one of which could have been different.  Politicians and citizens are, and always were, the shapers of their own destiny within the constraints that existed at the time.

So the study of history, and the well chosen commemoration of past events, should enable us, by learning from the consequences of   past decisions, to make better decisions in the future.

 It should encourage the taking of responsibility, rather than undue submission to victimhood, nostalgia or the blaming of others.

Larkin’s book covers many other topics, the contrast between the ideologies that inspired the 1798 and 1848 rebellions, the successes and failures of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and the varying attitudes of the Catholic Hierarchy to political violence.

 It also explores the appropriation of the religious feast of Easter by the faction of the IRB that launched the Rising, including through the use of religious imagery and notions of blood sacrifice in the Proclamation . 

 Even to this day, in secular Ireland, the 1916 Rising is commemorated on Easter Sunday, whenever that falls under the Christian calendar, rather than on 24 April each year, which is the actual anniversary.  This purely secular commemoration should probably not be conflated with the Resurrection of Christ. Each should be recalled by modern Ireland on their own merits.

Larkin believes democracy should infuse commemoration, so the foundational event of this state should be recognised as the anniversary of the meeting of the duly elected First Dail in 1919. This was a democratically sanctioned event, whereas , as a matter of historical fact, the  1916 Rising was not.

Felix Larkin’s book deserves to be widely read. It gives a very personal perspective, and offers insights that will help all residents of this island, whatever their allegiance, shape a peaceful  future,  free of grievance and myth.

He is a former senior official in the Department of Finance and later in the National Treasury Management Agency. 

All the while, he has also been an historian writing about many topics, most notably the history of Irish newspapers, something he first took up as a graduate student as far back as 1971. 

Felix Larkin’s work on newspapers has given him a unique window into contemporary Irish public opinion, over two centuries.

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